Travel Tuesday: Fly or Drive? The Pros and Cons of Each
Living in the middle of the country makes things pretty interesting when it comes to planning trips. Thanks to our local airport, we can get to a number of hubs easily and, from there, travel to just about anywhere in the world. Meanwhile, if we’re staying domestic, we also have the option of driving to our destination in many cases. So, given the choice between the two, how do we decide whether to fly or drive?
This is something that comes up fairly often for us. Funny enough, it’s actually been top of mind lately as we have not one but two trips we’re trying to plan yet keep getting caught up on which mode of transportation is best for the situation. On that note, I figured it was worth taking a look at some of the pros and cons of each that I think generally apply.
Obviously, a huge advantage of flying versus driving is the time savings. Driving across the country could take days in a car yet, as if by magic, it only takes a few hours in a plane. Even when you factor in the extra time you need to arrive at the airport with plenty of buffer until boarding as well as connection times, for any trip longer than a couple of hundred miles, flying is almost certainly the faster option.
Award travel is possible
Another benefit of flying is that you may be able to book your travel for free. Whether you cash in frequent flyer miles earned through your loyalty to a certain carrier or redeem points accrued via a credit card, there are several ways to go about claiming a free flight. Meanwhile, the same can’t really be said for road trips… unless you’re taking statement credits for your gas purchases or stocking up on gift cards, I suppose. Still, as someone who’s been learning more and more about the points and miles game, I do see award travel — including the ability to earn more miles as you fly — as a distinct advantage.
Multitasking or relaxing are both possible
Today’s planes are pretty technologically impressive in a number of ways. Among them, although no one raves about airplane WiFi, the fact that you can connect to the Internet while flying through the air is nothing short of a miracle. Whether or not you choose to do some work during your flight or just relax is up to you — but that’s exactly the point. When you’re driving, you’ll probably have some responsibilities to take care of and, even if you’re the passenger, don’t expect that you’ll be able to get much online work done. Yet, when flying, as they like to say, “sit back, relax, and enjoy.”
In the event that you don’t have any miles to redeem and need to pay for your flight out of pocket, there’s a strong chance that you’ll end up spending more than if you had driven. This is especially true if you have a fuel-efficient vehicle that will keep the costs down even more. Of course, while discount carriers like Allegiant, Spirit, and Frontier might make the math a bit more interesting at times and there may be other factors that occasionally make air travel the better deal, the cost of convenience typically rules the day, leading flying to be the more expensive option on the whole.
Stuck to airline schedule
Speaking of convenience, while I’d say that air travel is more convenient than ground travel overall, there are instances where the former can be a bit restrictive. For example, suppose that you need to be in a city by a certain time but the airline only has departures later in the day. This is exactly what happened to us while planning a trip to Las Vegas as we realized that the only available flight would put us into town hours after the show we have tickets for had started. Granted, this particular issue was exacerbated by Allegiant’s limited flight schedule, but such problems can still pop up with larger carriers as well. When they do, it can make for some tough choices — and I haven’t even mentioned delays or cancelations!
Need ground transportation
Flying is a great way to get from one city to another… but what happens once you get to your destination? Unless you’re staying right next to the airport, chances are you’ll need to take some sort of ground transportation. Whether this means taking a taxi, rideshare, train, or bus — or just renting a car — the result is extra cost along with a bevy of new factors to consider (routes, schedules, etc.). Moreover, depending on where you’re traveling to, your options may limited. Alas, had you driven, you’d already know how you were going to get around town.
As I mentioned, there may be scenarios where flying actually works out to be cheaper than driving — but, in our experience, such instances are few and far between. To be fair, that’s also probably a product of how we road trip, rarely making overnight stops in favor of powering through to our destination (our record is the 24-hour drive from Springfield, Missouri to Los Angeles). Still, even if we were to add hotel costs to the equation, it’s usually much less expensive for us to drive. Why? Well, when you fly, the cost is per person, so having two of us doubles the fare. Meanwhile, the occupancy of a vehicle has virtually no impact on the overall cost. This, more than our hybrid car or lack of stops, has to be the biggest factor that makes road travel more economical for us when compared to flying.
Have a car at the destination
I realize that this sounds incredibly obvious but I think it’s important. In fact, it’s just one factor we’re currently considering as we plan for an upcoming trip. The bottom line is that we will need a car at our destination, but renting will raise the cost of the trip significantly on top of the already increased expense of flying. Alternatively, we could call an Uber any time we wanted to go anywhere, but that sounds like a hassle and those trips would quickly add up. Thus, if having my car with me is an option, it’s usually a win.
When I think about driving, one of the words that comes to my head is “control.” Sure there are plenty of things you can’t regulate on a road trip (traffic, road closures, weather, etc.) but, compared to the alternative, you’ll have much greater command. For example, say a storm is blowing through around the time you’re scheduled to fly. If you’re at a large airport, not only will your departure likely be delayed until conditions improve but, since so many other flights are in the same situation, the backup could quickly grow long. In some cases, this may even mean cancelations — leaving you SOL. Now, had you driven, you’d likely have more options. You can pull over if the weather is bad but then resume your trip once it passes. Again, this isn’t to say that things can’t go wrong on a road trip, but at least you’ll have a little more say in whether or not your travels go forward.
Takes more time
This is, without a doubt, the biggest downside to driving versus flying. While we could hop a plane to Orlando and arrive a little over two hours later, this same trip takes more than 16 hours in a car (I know because we’ve done it multiple times). That’s a pretty daunting ratio and doesn’t even take into account the fact that flying is a very passive activity whereas driving requires alertness and action. Therefore, while jetlag is definitely a thing, it’s nothing compared to how you’re likely to feel after completing a long road trip. Ugh.
Possible parking fees
Having your own car and being able to get around is great, but what sucks is having to park your car. This is something a lot of people who always fly and never rent a car might not realize but parking at hotels can be expensive! In some cases, you may end up spending $50 a day just to keep your car with you. Even worse, some hotels charge more for “in and out privileges” (meaning that, if you want to actually use your car during your stay, it’ll cost you) while others don’t even have their own parking available. Because of this, if you are considering driving, definitely be sure to do your research on this aspect of your stay ahead of time so you don’t get any rude surprises.
Puts wear on your car
Finally, it should be acknowledged that the costs that come with road trips aren’t always seen on your post-travel credit card statement. That’s because, as your drive those long distances through all kinds of terrains, you’ll be putting wear on your vehicle. These costs are a bit hard to calculate and can vary based on a variety of factors. Still, it’s worth keeping in mind that, as your car gets older and up there in miles, the costs (and risks) of road trips may start to rise.
Ultimately, no two trips are exactly alike nor are the travelers taking them. As a result, it’s hard to say whether flying or driving will make the most sense in your specific situation. Heck, I can’t even figure out what I want to do and I’m the one writing the article! In any case, when making your decision, at least consider these pros and cons as well as any others you might come up with to help you arrive at the best plan for your travels.